The Coalition Reacts to Draft Law Initiated by Georgian Dream and to the Venice Commission’s Opinion

On October 9, the Venice Commission published an unprecedentedly critical opinion regarding the Organic Law of Georgia “On Common Courts.” The document evaluates both the June 2023 legislative amendments and the draft law of September 2023. The latter, unfortunately, became available to the public only after the Commission’s Opinion was published. The Coalition welcomes the clear and critical comments made by the Venice Commission, most of which agree on the fundamental challenges in the justice system identified by civil society over the years and calls on the Georgian authorities to take those challenges into account.

The October 9 Opinion of the Venice Commission once again summarizes the main recommendations made for Georgia in March 2023 and indicates that, unfortunately, the most pressing parts of these recommendations are still unfulfilled.

In the document, special attention is paid to the need and reasoning for fundamental and comprehensive reform of the High Council of Justice. According to the Commission, reform of the Council does not imply only addressing technical problems, which can be solved by making small changes to the existing legislation. The comprehensive reform required encompasses revising the Council’s authority, functions, composition, and the selection process of its members to address questions regarding its integrity and possible corporatism in the system and to reinforce public trust in the judiciary, its independence, and impartiality. Furthermore, such reform should be implemented through a broad, inclusive process and with the understanding that there is no short-cut way to improve the judiciary and restore public trust in it.

In the context of the High Council of Justice reform, the Venice Commission also discussed the issue of vetting, which is a special and temporary mechanism for in-depth verification of the professionalism, qualifications, and integrity of the members of the Council. According to the Commission, when using a mechanism such as vetting, decisions should be made in view of the country-specific context and should involve all relevant parties.

As for other issues, the Venice Commission pointed out that both the June 2023 law and the September amendments do not fully address the Commission’s recommendations on judges’ secondments, disciplinary liability, the binding nature of the Supreme Court Qualification Chamber’s decisions, and other issues.

The Commission also clearly noted that the recommended reforms should be carried out without unjustified delay.

To sum up, the 2023 June and September legislative amendments do not meet the European Commission’s recommendations and, hence, the spirit of the Venice Commission’s opinion. Also, considering the limited time remaining until the European Commission decides on the country’s candidate status, the ruling party, instead of acknowledging fundamental problems of the justice sector and holding a wide discussion on their systemic solution, once again accentuates inessential issues.

More specifically, the only significant positive change proposed by the September draft amendments is the renewed regulation of accessibility of court acts. The rest is insignificant and fragmented, not serving the purposes of the liberation of the judiciary from informal influences, improvement of independence guarantees of individual judges, and strengthening trust in the system.

As an example, one of the amendments suggests increasing the quorum necessary for the imposition of judicial disciplinary liability from a simple majority to no less than two-thirds of the votes of the High Council members. However, in view of the existing need to fully reform the system of disciplinary liability, and the election of candidates loyal to the government and the judiciary as non-judge members after a two-year delay, such amendment individually cannot generate any results.

The Venice Commission additionally notes that the ruling party has not considered civil society’s and the Venice Commission’s recommendation to change the decision-making rule in the High Council of Justice by increasing the participation of non-judge members in the process. The Commission says that the idea of pluralism implies not only the presence of non-judge members in the Council but also their meaningful and effective participation in the decision-making process.

The Venice Commission Opinion once again emphasizes the need for comprehensive reform of the Georgian judiciary, which is more critical in view of the ongoing process of European integration. Such changes should start with an assessment of corporativism and informal influences in the system and, based on the issues identified as a result of the assessment, consistently address the following issues: a comprehensive reform of the High Council of Judges, increasing individual judges’ independence guarantees; improvement of the system’s accountability and transparency and other topics intended at the system’s actual improvement.

The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary calls on the Parliament of Georgia to acknowledge the complex nature of problems existing in the justice system, consider the Venice Commission’s and local actors’ opinions, and start an inclusive process for real and fundamental reforms.